Thursday, November 18, 2004

Recriminations no more

In the last two weeks, I've probably read about 80,000 words from very smart people explaining what is wrong with the Democrats and where the party must go. Many of these articles make terrific points. But if you must read only one, this is it. Funny thing is, this article actually isn't about recriminations or strategy per se, but about a dude's experience canvassing in Wisconsin and talking to undecided voters. The guy broke down the common complaints/concerns/reasoning offered by "swing voters" and, in the process of breaking down, totally illustrates the failure of the Democratic Party's communication strategy. The chief strategic failure for Democrats, as many others (including myself) have argued, is that they buy into Stanley Greenberg's strategy of running on issues that poll well. (Main problem is when you poll people, they will naturally support policies that sound good. But the vast majority of swing voters aren't forced to thinking about issues in such schematic ways, and aren't necessarily going to do start making issues-based decisions just because a politician keeps spitting out stats. Most voters don't go to those websites that tell you which candidate to support based on your own policy preferences.)

In other words, issues lose out to a compelling narrative every time, something the GOP understands. Hence, repetition, propoganda and narrative are the hallmarks of the Republicans' Madison Avenue-styled campaigns. It works. You see the pervasive effect of Republican propoganda (and Dem haplessness) any time you hear some apathetic, PS2-obsessed twentysomething mention something about politics ("flip flopper" "at least I know where he stands" "tax and spend"). The voters who care about politics and believe in political solutions have already made up their minds; they've split about 35-35. For the large group of Americans who haven't, you gotta win them over with clever propoganda -- with insidious memes that slither their way into their unconscious like soft drink taglines -- not with 5-point plans and newspaper endorsements.

The Democrats need to learn how to brand. To use one trivial example, when Bush started dissing Massachusetts during the debate, why didn't Kerry defend his home state by citing its nation-low divorce rate or its historical status as the flashpoint of the Revolution. In fact, the very notion held by many that Kansas or Texas is somehow "American" than Massachusetts demonstrates the Democrats' failure at branding as well as the GOP's success at same.

But there's a silver lining. Hopefully, the Democrats will shake off the focus-group-centric, "issues" campaigns that they've been running and pay attention to George Lakoff, whose new book on framing issues should be the bible for progressives. Also, I heard this book on political branding, Retro v. Metro, is supposed to be pretty good. The key isn't pandering to know-nothings; it's manipulating the information-deficient to see your party as standing for what they stand for.

Sure, it's fashionable and fun to blame the religious right for the loss. But they're not to blame; those folks are a natural part of the Repug constitutency, just as (the much smaller) secular humanists are a natural part of the Dem constituency. And the data now shows that these guys haven't increased their turnout; they've simply swung further to the GOP camp. Still, it sure is fun to mock their sheep fucking ways. And I'm not going to apologize for pointing out that these folks are intolerant, backwards idiots. If the Repugs can tar "coastal elitists" and liberals with impunity, surely the nutcase right deserves the same kind of slime. (These articles about understanding one another are great, but if there's one thing the Bush campaign proves, it's far more effective to take the low road than the high.)

Plus, it makes no sense for the Democrats to pander to nutcases. The mainstream Christians don't want a theocracy, and there are many more mainstream Christians than there are evangelicals. They're part of the swing vote that the Dems should work at winning over with better explanations, more conviction, and a more clever campaign, instead of trying to pander to the alums of Bob Jones University. Lastly, to Victor: what's more "condescending", "elitist" and "arrogant"? Letting people live their lives based on the moral values they've arrived at, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, or trying to impose your religious tenets regardless of whether people share them or not. Mocking nutcases for intolerance and bad taste, or smugly believing that those who don't buy into your religion are going to burn in eternal misery? Or how about asserting that you're a "real American" while others are not just because you're some white dude with a fat head whose idea of patriotism is sticking a "Support the Troops" sticker on your 10 mpg Escalade?

Oscar watching

Believe it or not, there are people who spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the Academy Awards. I'm not one of them, but they're out there, and three or four times a year I'll check out their sites to see what they have to say. Today was one of those times. After recalling a conversation with assorted movie nerds in NY during which we decided there are no front-runners, I looked at one of those Oscar predix sites to see what the conventional wisdom is. Lo and behold, there's buzz building for Joel Schumacher! That's right. The most maligned name in the business. His new movie, the trashy-looking Phantom of the Opera, is tabbed by veteran Oscar watchers like Dave Poland as the odds-on fave. Might as well. If we can re-elect a complete fuck-up for POTUS, we can give the notorious auteur of Batman & Robin and A Time to Kill the golden boy.

Other possibilies, already out: Kinsey (the culture war redux); Fahrenheit 9/11 (Hollywood's revenge); Ray (I know, I know); Passion of the Christ (pandering to Red States?); Sideways (the critical fave); Finding Neverland (puts the bait in Oscar-bait); The Incredibles (finally Pixar's year?).

Other possibilities, mostly unseen: Scorsese's The Aviator (looks bad, but what do I know?); Brooks' Spanglish (looks bad, but Brooks is usually solid); Closer (can its artistic integrity recover from Natalie's sabatoge?); Million Dollar Baby (Clint's sixteenth picture in the last 3 years).

Yeah, right: Alexander.

In a universe just like this one, except populated by clear-thinking people rather than Bush voters: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will at least stand a chance.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

No Let Up in 2nd Term

With the nomination of bumbling yes-woman/love slave Condi Rice to the head the State Department and the orders to purge the CIA of career professionals who aren't Dubya aparatchiks, Bush immediately snuffs out any hope that he'll achieve a semblence of competence in his lame duck years. By getting rid of sensible counsel like Powell, Bush is consolidating greater control, which means more disasters on the horizon. There is now no doubt that Bush's tentacles remain firmly unattached to the reality (or reality-based communities) but now to some imagined mandate from heaven.

The only checks on this continuing nightmare are (1) the massive budget deficit and attendant fears of a massive bond sellout (thereby crashing the dollar and spiking up interest rates) might -- might! -- prevent more reckless tax giveaways; (2) the overextension of the military in Iraq means that neocon fantasies will be restricted to what is actually feasible rather than simply the theoretically possible.

A sliver of hope: the death of Arafat might force Bush to seize the moment and push for a Middle East deal in the next two years. Though the Chimp has been neglecting the Israel/Palestinian problem his first four years, concerns about legacy and perhaps a chance to top Clinton might be enough motivation to push for something to get done. Sharon, no doubt, also senses the opportunity; only fear is that whomever emerges as the Palestinian Authority leader (likely Abbas) will not have the power (basically credibility and trust with his own people) to cut a deal that sacrifices the Palestinian demands for a right of return for refugees and contiguous territories in the West Bank, the two terms that hung up the Camp David negotiations in 2000.

And let's hope he doesn't appoint the singularly obnoxious Joe Lieberman to head up the Pentagon as rumored. Btw, check out the most ridiculous bit of punditry in 2004, the increasingly unstable Martin Peretz arguing that the sanctimonious Joe-mentum, with his wrinkly jowls, high pitched whine, unmitigated hawkish rhetoric and I ♥ Repugs persona, would've beaten Bush. (Faced with the choice of a real Republican and a wanna-be, the country would no doubt just choose the real McCoy.) Hang it up, Marty, and check yourself into a clinic until a Mideast deal is signed. Right now you're a complete embarrassment to that fine magazine.

What's worse
: he now owes a debt of gratitude to the 20% of religious nutcases in this country who helped elect him. Bush's Clash of Civilizations project will continue unabated.

But fuck them. Fuck these rightwing nutcases, the American equivalent of Islamo-fascist extremists. Fuck their creationist babble and their sanctimony and their absolutism and their bad sex lives and their fat heads and their hypocrisy and their kitschy Ten Commandment tablets and "Elect Jesus" lawsigns and cousin-fucking and salisbury steaks and the 16th century they want to drive their gas-guzzling, impotence-compensating SUVs back to. Above all, fuck the way they want impose their ass-backwards, retarded worldview on the rest of us. They give my life and my beliefs no respect; why should I then respect these idiots just because there are more of them.

Wait, don't fuck the salisbury steaks. Those actually can be kinda good.

For more, check out Fuck the South. Also cathartic: the Urban Archipelago published in Seattle's The Stranger (hat tip: James Callan).

Monday, November 15, 2004

Movie-related links

* The best movie review of the year -- Vern answers the question you've been dying to know: why the fuck does Garfield hate Mondays?

* Bilge Ebiri, a frequent commenter on this blog, has a movie playing in NY called New Guy. It's even garnered a favorable NY Times review. So when's it coming to LA, bud?

* From the New York Times Magazine's movie issue: Manohla Dargis' thinkpiece on the state of cinephilia. Dargis doesn't say anything I haven't read before, but her observations are mostly spot-on as she gives an optimistic spin to current developments in movie-loving, contra Susan Sontag. I agree that the DVD boom is a great boon for cinephiles (even as it devalues the "religious" rep house experience), but she plays down the ghettoization of world cinema. By turning it into a cult or niche phenomenon, it becomes difficult to envision a foreign filmmaker becoming the kind of familiar cultural icon like Godard or Fellini in this day and age. Almodovar comes closest, but he's basically it. [Add Lars as well. Thanks, Steve.] And that's a shame.

* A.O. Scott's ruminations on recent themes in world cinema is also solid. Written for the non-film buff, it provides a good, brief summary of the developments in recent world cinema and the dilemma facing foreign films in the United States. Only problem is Scott framing his discussion around Jia's new movie The World, which sorta falls prey to the American critic's bias for foreign films that somehow touch on the zeigeist (this decade: globalization and its discontents, namely nationalism and identity). For non-movie buffs looking for a crash course, get Scott's three minute "Contemporary World Cinema for Dummies" lecture in this interactive feature.

* The editor of the NY Times Magazine must be a big fan of In the Mood for Love. On the heels of the mag's mega Wong Kar-wai profile despite his movie not playing in NY this year, this week we get a lengthy profile of Maggie Cheung, whose new movie Clean is also not hitting the Big Apple theaters any time soon. It gives you a glimpse of the sphinx that is the divine Maggie, and it raises the intriguing question, why isn't Maggie a huge star in North America? Well, actually, the article provides the answer in this passage:

American producers do occasionally send Cheung scripts, but the independent films are always about, as she put it, "ABC's," or "American-born Chinese," struggling with their identity, and the Hollywood scripts feature dragon ladies or Chinatown mafia molls or martial artists or mysterious fortunetelling women.

The Asian experience in Hollywood in a nutshell.

* Speaking of Wong, my uncle got me the 2046 DVD from China. The quality is pretty okay from the five minutes I skimmed through. Should I just watch the DVD and catch up to the projected film later? I'm inclined to wait, but it's tempting to just pop the disc in. What to do, what to do?

* Yes. I know, I should be posting some of this stuff to a certain moribund movie nerd discussion group instead of encouraging movie nerd diaspora.

Dots and Loops

You just realized that the movie you pieced together in your head was completely wrong. In fact, you had no clue what happened. Does it matter? The maddening Primer (B+/B) is a good case study. The movie is impossible to fully comprehend on one viewing. For some like Dan Sallitt, impressed by the film's astute observations of engineering geek behavior, or Mike D'Angelo, whose pull-quote addressing the subject is featured here, it hardly matters. Others like V-Mort just checked out because there's nothing that he can hang his hat on.


Strangely enough, my reaction changed radically, though my assessment (read: grade) remained the same after catching up to all the readings of the movie after the viewing. Let me explain: My first pass had Rachel's party as the casus belli for the time-travel. I wrongly thought that somehow in the first timeline, Rachel had been shot at the party, giving rise to Abe recruiting Aaron to prevent the tragedy. The idea has Terminator-like banality, but the time-travel-to-prevent-tragedy trope is a particularly potent brew, and this movie had an eerie, world-off-its-axis vibe that made it work.

My reading, though, was completely off. For those interested, the answer to what the fuck was happening may be found in the Primer message board and these two interviews with Scott Carruth, the film's creator. (Worth a read: Carruth's idea that the film addresses the abortion issue is especially provocative.) The plot actually pivots around Aaron and Abe trying to prevent the original Aaron and Abe from returning to the box, a point I didn't even get on one viewing. But I still wonder: why was Aaron so obsessed with Rachel's party and being the hero?

The best explanation is offered by Mike (whose 24.3 viewings of the film have made him the resident expert), who concludes that, beyond getting rich, Aaron's actually using the time machine to act out utterly mundane fantasies, like punching his boss or playing "hero" in an event that would have ended harmlessly even without intervention. The central observation of Primer isn't just that those with unlimited power will abuse it; it's that many of those with unlimited power won't know what to do with it, get bored, and will eventually marshall that power to fulfill ridiculously banal fantasies instead of, y'know, making life better for humanity and all that jazz. It's a profound observation, though, in the spirit of this month's theme of Showing Off How Well Read I am Even Though I Read Like Two Fiction Books a Year, If That, I think that Nicholson Baker's notorious time-freeze perv-novel The Fermata makes this point in a more provocative and, um, arousing fashion. (What it is a dude uses his time-freezing powers to do stuff like write erotica, bury it next to a woman on the beach, then spy on her as she goes home to masturbate while reading said erotica. Great stuff.)

Also, I can't help but dock points for Carruth's inability to make its points clearly. To be sure, Carruth is to be admired for not explaining every point to the dimwitted, but he takes his approach too far. In Primer, you can't distinguish the doubles from the originals, or figure out which timeline you're actually in. There's no set-up, not enough quick shots that will at least orient the viewer. Some critics deride those devices as "exposition" and applaud Carruth for ditching them, but these devices are part of the grammar of narrative film, and that language is especially necessary to a movie that's based largely on plot. Carruth's like a writer making statements like "I am. House." The reader might eventually be able figure out in context that the guy was in the house, but prepositions exist for a reason: so the statement can make sense without having to troll obscure nerd sites to induce the meaning. Let the viewer do some work, but let's not break your jigsaw puzzle into 1,000 identically-sized squares, okay?

Even more mystifying to some viewers is the sublime Tropical Malady (A-), which seems to me almost entirely comprehensible. Don't have much to add to Theo's orgasmic capsule, except to add that this is one of the best movies ever about the danger of attachment. Also, the way in which Joe sets up scenes by focusing on the faces of extras is so fucking awesome.